Washington D.C. has become, in recent years, a real "foodie" destination. Celebrity chefs and degustation menus have become more prevalent than I can remember in my lifetime in this city. But where do the locals go? A lot of the same places everyone else goes, quite honestly. But here are a few of my favorite places and the places I always recommend when someone asks. Please comment on your favorite local spots below and don't forget to return the favor when I end up in your town!
Ben’s Chili Bowl
New York has its pizza, Boston its baked beans and Memphis its dry rubbed ribs, but in DC, we love our local specialty: the half-smoke. A half-smoke is a lightly smoked sausage made with half pork and half beef in a natural casing. It has a mild but flavorful taste and just the right amount of smoke to it to know it’s there without taking over the flavor profile. You can get them all over DC, even at most of the street vendors down on the mall, but for DC natives there really is only one place for your half-smoke cravings: Ben’s Chili Bowl.
Ben’s has been a DC tradition since Ben Ali and his soon-to-be-wife Virginia opened the doors on August 22, 1958 in the building that held DC’s first silent movie house The Minnehaha. Both my mother and my grandmother remember eating here in the 60s when they worked at then nearby Children’s Hospital. It really is one of a very small handful of places that can claim three generations of loyal followers.
At Ben’s, the proper way to eat a half-smoke is on a warm steamed bun with mustard, onion and house-made chili from a secret family recipe. The chili is amazing on its own and is more of a meat sauce than anything (in other words, I wouldn’t get a bowl of it). I wish I could tell you more things from the menu, but I can’t imagine coming here and ordering anything else. Grab a half-smoke all the way and maybe some chili fries (skip the cheese) and soak up some of the true DC ambiance. While Ben passed away in 2009, Virginia is often around, as warm and hospitable as ever.
This tiny corner tavern opened right after the repeal of prohibition in 1933 in what was then a very working-class part of town. William S. Martin, a native of Galway, Ireland, opened the tavern with his son, Georgetown University alum William G. Martin. William G. had had the distinct and unusual honor of playing exactly one game as a professional baseball player for the 1914 World Champion Boston Braves, a game I’m sure he spun tales about until the day he died to Martin’s regulars. Martin’s is currently being run by Billy Martin, great-grandson of William S. and therefore a fourth generation owner, making this the oldest family run restaurant in the city.
Martin’s is truly classic DC, something rare and getting more rare by the year. Its long-time bartenders are some of the best and most knowledgeable in the city and always make everyone who can fit in this tiny space feel welcome. Martin’s likes to say that it has welcomed every president from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, but none has ever come as a sitting president. I think it’s more telling that these men came as senators and vice-presidents, seeking refuge in a tiny corner of the city. Most famously, booth 3 was where Senator John F. Kennedy proposed to Ms. Jacqueline Le Bouvier.
When in Georgetown you should definitely stop by Martin’s for a good meal, a great drink and a real sense of DC history in a classic but unpretentious environment. It's far enough away from the hill to avoid all but the most traditionalist of the hill-crowd.
Not every city has a place like Madam’s Organ, but every city should. Although only open for 20 years and therefore the newest place on my list, Madam’s Organ has truly become a DC institution. The name is simply a play on words of the neighborhood it lives in: Adams Morgan and the building it lives in actually has an interesting past of its own. Back in 1948, Charles Lazarus opened a store called Children’s Supermart at this location. When he opened a second branch of the store, he chose a more catchy name and something you may be a little more familiar with: Toys ‘R’ Us.
Madam’s Organ is definitely not a place for kids, but is kind of like a toy store for adults. With four floors and five bars, you are never far from a drink or a change of scenery. With dead animals and portraits of naked women on the walls, its sprawling gypsy vibe is reminiscent of New Orleans, and their reasonable soul-food menu only enhances that idea. The main floor hosts live music seven nights a week with a great weekend lineup of blues and other roots music. The second floor is more experimental with DJs and open mic nights.
I always come for the music, stay for the chill vibe and leave in a haze. Whenever people ask me about nightlife in DC, I tell them I know there are clubs around somewhere, but for a good time they need look no further than Madam’s Organ. Oh, and redheads always drink ½ price.
If someone asks me for a restaurant recommendation in DC, I inevitably send them to one of the Clyde’s Restaurant Group locations, with their price-range or hotel choice being the determining factor. Clyde’s got its start way back in 1963 in Georgetown, taking over a rowdy biker bar called B&J Restaurant. Clyde’s of Georgetown is still the flagship location and remains a classic and popular Georgetown institution. In 1976, their happy hour menu was titled Afternoon Delights which became the inspiration for the title of, but not the content of the Starland Vocal Band song of that name.
In 1970, the owners acquired the oldest and most storied restaurant in DC: Old Ebbit Grill. Sitting close to the White House, this is the spot for a classy and classic downtown dining experience.
In 1985, three more locations joined the party: 1789, The Tombs and F. Scott’s. 1789 is still probably my favorite spot for a jacket and tie special event and the food is fantastic. In the basement of the same building is the Tombs, a classic Georgetown University haunt. It was the inspiration for the St. Elmo Bar in St. Elmo’s Fire and apparently a favorite of Bill Clinton when he was a student there (and of my brother when HE was a student there).
Others have since joined the roster of this local group of restaurants, and I have rarely had a bad experience at any of them. The food is locally sourced, reasonably priced and expertly prepared. The ambiance is classic and always makes me feel as though I am somewhere way more expensive than I am. For a taste of classic DC, head to any of Clyde’s locations, get a crab cake and a cold beer and soak up the surroundings.
Maine Avenue Fish Market
While not hidden and not a secret, the vast majority of people I ever see at Maine Avenue Fish Market are definitely local. While good fresh seafood at reasonable prices is a great reason to come here, the best reason to visit is the crabs. You can go to a handful of local restaurants and get blue crabs, but you are going to undoubtedly pay too much for the experience. At Maine Street Fish market, you always get a fair price and you can go from picking out your crabs to putting them in your belly in about 20 minutes.
There is no doubt that our proximity to the Chesapeake Bay gives us access to and a love of blue crabs. I love crabs and have enjoyed them all over the country and the world, but there is something special about the Maryland blue crab. The sweet meat and the amazing flavor of Old Bay seasoning makes these a true local treat.
If it’s your first time eating blue crabs, definitely watch a youtube video about how to eat them, or you will end up hungry and frustrated and not understanding why we rave about them. Until you have mastered picking crabs, it is probably best to start with a few of the bigger ones as opposed to a dozen small ones. The MOST important thing though is to buy them live, who knows how long the cooked ones have been there? They will steam them for you on-site and you will end up with a steaming paper bag full of fresh, piping hot, deliciously seasoned seafood perfection. Get yourself a loaf of bread and a cold beer to go with it, a roll of paper towels for cleanup and you’ve got the makings for a truly magical local lunch. Happy picking. (Crab season is generally from early April – December).
So those are my top local picks here in Washington D.C. I hope you enjoy your stay.